To quote singer and full-time pants man David Lee Roth, “I’m a family man; in fact, I started three last week.”
This feature was originally published in MOTOR’s December 2001 issue
In Roth terms, the Subaru Liberty B4 is a family man’s sedan, maternal styling trying to hide the effect of 190kW from sequentially-acting dual turbochargers. It’s an approach to muscle cardom many Australians may not totally appreciate but one the Europeans and Japanese really dig.
Not impressed? Then realise this; the Liberty B4 has almost the same power as a 5.0-litre V8 yet weighs about 150kg less than an XR8.
When it comes to keeping things low-key, the body kit can hardly be called boofy. That puny rear wing and bonnet scoop directing air to the intercooler is more muted apologies than lusty overtones. And look at the, well, rather dull Liberty B4 colour range: graphite black mica, silver metallic, deep blue mica, and pure white.
This isn’t a car that’s going to be noticed. The statement is in not making a statement; let the whisper of the twin turbos do the talking. With poetic understatement, the B4 is anti-Evo, but almost as evil.
The Volkswagen Bora 4Motion speaks the same no-lair lingo. Let’s remember that the Liberty B4’s water-cooled boxer engine carries DNA dating back to the air-cooled Dak-Dak; fortunately, sometime last century the two paths diverged. VW could care less to see Subaru succeed with the boxer four-cylinder when the German maker has been busy breaking just about every rule on engine design, and succeeding.
VW’s narrow V engine is impressive. In the Bora, the 2.8-litre V6 is about the same size as an in-line four, with about twice the power. It packs 150kW at 6200rpm and 270NM at 3200rpm.
VW and Subaru appear to agree that a proper sports sedan needs bags of grip and all-wheel drive. Even so there is contrast. A Haldex clutch controls the Bora 4Motion’s centre differential, while the Liberty B4 uses a viscous coupling. From the driver’s seat, both feel decidedly front-drive biased.
With 40 fewer kilowatts than the B4, the Bora is at a disadvantage before either turns a wheel. For a similar spend, (Bora at $54,400 to the Liberty at $55,130), VW offers an interior crammed to the roofline with style and safety, but the naturally-aspirated 2.8-litre engine is bread roll short of a buffet against the might of the twin-turbo B4.
What an engine! The B4’s motor is basically the same as the WRX 2.0-litre, with a couple of performance changes. The B4 cylinder heads are the exotics from the STi, with very light hollow intake valves and sodium-filled exhaust valves. Forged alloy pistons with molybdenum-coated full skirts are works of art. Compression ratio is 9:1 compared with the WRX’s 8:1.
The B4 engine is more powerful and more driveable than the WRX thanks to a small primary turbo to boost on low revs and a larger secondary huffer to up the herbs at high revs. It makes maximum power of 190kW at 6400rpm, fairly early on in a 7500rpm rev range. The story of this engine is torque, and it produces plenty from 278Nm at 2000rpm to a maximum of 320Nm at 4800rpm.
From the initial touch of the clutch, throttle and gear stick, these are two very different cars to drive. It is the B4 that’s sharp, positive and defined; firm even, and compared to the soggy response of the Bora, the Subaru immediately starts earning your trust.
Subaru starts with a torsionally stiffer body shell with less body flex to affect the suspension, which means the springs, dampers and sway bars can be dialled in more effectively. Sizing up the two, the Subaru is longer overall and, more importantly, longer in the wheelbase by 137mm. The squarer Bora looks wider, and it is. Track width and kerb mass favour the Bora, only marginally. Suspension for both is McPherson struts front and multi-link independent rear.
The B4’s insides are about as flash as a cupboard with the light off, with exception of a Vegas-like instrument light display. The instruments arc up in sequence, beginning with the thin golden gauge surrounds, followed by the bright red needles and finally the faces come to full light. It is a neat trick for a car that isn’t really all that tricky.
On interior design, the B4 is an oasis of black and purple leather in a desert of blah. Practical, yes, but not pretty. You buy Subaru for other reasons, and experience states loud and clear those reasons are ride and handling. It will be very tough to beat, mainly because once you get past the Visual nothingness of its exterior and interior design, the Subaru does few things wrong on-road.
The Bora 4Motion is the better equipped car, with gear like a glass sunroof, a 60/40 folding rear seat (the B4 has a ski port), front and side airbags, leather seats, six-speed manual gearbox (B4 has a five-speed), cruise control, six CD stacker, and a pollen-dust filter. On the face of it, VW loads the Bora 4Motion with more stuff while Subaru sweats the basics.
Cut to the chase: a few car lengths behind the bellowing-red Bora 4Motion is the blow-hard Liberty B4 that, at the moment, is closing appreciably quicker than it rightfully should. The Bora is not slow, even over this nasty road strewn with more asphalt waves than a trio of disaster movies, but up front, the Bora’s suspension is as cantankerous as a bag of cats, and grappling with the road is not exactly relaxing.
The harder it’s pushed, the more the front end plows under feverishly increasing turns of lock. Great for a John Deere; dreadful for a German sports compact sedan with more promise than a campaigning Liberal politician. A third-degree disappointment, on first impression.
The last car I remember as being this poor in chassis dynamics was co-incidentally - the Audi A6, and Audi had the smarts to move quickly to firm the spring and damper rates for Oz. Come to think of it, the Bora 4Motion is one of many recent VWs With woeful chassis tuning. We’ll long remember the first Golf GTi, but may we soon forget the rest.
The B4 is doing it easy, sticking to the road as if nailed there with a dirty great hammer. We’re not on a rewarding piece of blacktop, but it is typical of Australia’s crap secondary roads, and the perfect reason why all-wheel drive makes sobering sense when coupled to ferocious kilowatts.
Drive these miserable roads quickly, and you’ll appreciate the B4’s chassis, long-travel suspension and steering. Undoubtedly well balanced, the steering is slightly heavy initially, but on a mangled piece of twisting road, it’s quick to change direction. Reassuringly, the B4 does go where you point it; the Bora 4Motion doesn’t in spite of, and in some ways because of, its fandangled yaw-sensing Electronic Stability Program (ESP). Switching it off doesn’t help; that’s not the Bora’s basic problem.
There’s no pleasure in the overly-light steering feel, light clutch and light suspension settings. Overall, the Bora 4Motion tries hard to be sporting, but it just doesn’t come off. The Bora 4Motion with ESP and all-wheel drive has the gear but no idea.
There is an exception, and that’s the gorgeous V6 with its soulful exhaust note. Absolute power isn’t everything, as the Bora gives away 40 kW and 50 NIB to the B4 but we think with a proper suspensioI1 set-up, the Bora could keep the B4 close on the snaky stuff. The VW makes top power much lower in the rev range, and it’s geared shorter through the first five gates. It’s quick for the first 100 metres, but it’s never as quick as the B4.
Because both are all-wheel drive manuals, they’re bastards to get off the line quickly. The B4 is the worst, badly bogging even when abused with a 6000rpm clutch-bombing launch. Below 2500rpm, the engine falls limp and lifeless. You’re left waiting for something, anything to happen. And it does!
Above 2500rpm with a gutful of boost, the B4 charges hard. Then 7000rpm arrives, and without warning the engine’s bouncing off the rev limiter at 7500rpm. The power band is obese and the gearing spread tight, and what’s more, the short throw of the shifter is the cherry. Our three-run average of 14.8 see over 400 metres was disappointing, but still a lazy second and some quicker than the Bora at 16.3. If the words don’t convince you, the numbers should.
The stopwatch really doesn’t determine which is the better car, though. The Bora is the more modern, more advanced and more attractive, but it isn’t the better car, not by a long shot. That’s the Liberty B4 by a fair margin.
Where the homely B4 finds its competition is with the littler beasty boys: WRX, 200SX and Integra Type-R. Like David Lee Roth, the Liberty B4 will always have trouble acting its age.
Gone but not forgotten with classic MOTOR
|Subaru Liberty B4|
|Body||4-door, 5-seat sedan|
|Engine||2.8-litre V6, DOHC, 24v||2.0-litre horizontally-opposed four,
DOHC, 16v, turbocharged
|Bore x Stroke||81.0 x 90.2mm||92.0 x 75.0mm|
|Power||150kW @ 6200rpm||190kW @ 6400rpm|
|Torque||270Nm @ 3200rpm||320Nm @ 4800rpm|
|Transmission||6-speed manual||5-speed manual|
|Suspension (f)||MacPherson-type struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|Suspension (r)||multi-links, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|Tracks||1513/1487mm (f/r)||1460/1460mm (f/r)|
|Brakes (f)||312mm ventilated discs,
|294mm ventilated discs,
|Brakes (r)||256mm ventilated discs,
|290mm ventilated discs,
|Wheels||16.0 x 6.5-inch (f/r)||17.0 x 7.0-inch (f/r)|
|Tyre Sizes||205/55 R16 (f/r)||215/45 R17 (f/r)|
|Tyres||MIchelin Pilot HX||Bridgestone Potenza RE010|
|Subaru Liberty B4|